Canungra, a rural town of 700 people, is 25 km inland from Surfers Paradise and 65 km south of central Brisbane. It is situated on Canungra Creek (a tributary of the Albert River), in the foothills of the McPherson Range. The name 'Canungra' is thought to derive from an Aboriginal expression describing a small owl.
Timber was taken from the ranges around Canungra in the 1860s, but the first intensive exploitation of the timber reserves came with the Lahey brothers who had several timber leases in the 1880s. They established a mill at the village of Canungra and for nearly ten years obtained logs within close proximity.
Canungra's Uniting church dates its origin from 1882, and the government primary school began in 1889. Farmers took up selections in the lower foothills, and the Lahey brothers pushed a tramway southwards toward the Coomera River's headwaters, to take out more distant logs. The tramway included a 100m tunnel built in 1901 (listed on the Queensland heritage register) and the line reached its maximum length in 1908. Lahey's mill dominated Canungra's economy until 1920. By this time most of the local timber had been cut out. The War Services Home Commission bought the operation in 1920, and it closed soon after. The tramway continued for a period, but was dismantled in the early 1930s. Meanwhile a State railway line had been extended from Logan Village to Canungra in the period from 1915 to 1955.
The post office directory for 1935 recorded a hotel, an arrowroot mill, three stores, three timber mills (but not of the scale of Lahey's enterprise) and a boarding house. Canungra's population was about 600 people, and held its first agricultural show in 1938.
In 1942 a Land Headquarters Training Centre (jungle warfare) was established at Canungra for training troops destined for combat in the Pacific region, the building complex in the training centre later named Kokoda Barracks. Closed soon after 1945, the centre re-opened in 1954, and was used intensively for training of troops for service in Vietnam during the 1960s. Further military activities were later concentrated at Canungra, including intelligence training (1994) and the Command, Staff and Operations Wing (1997). The military area occupies about 6000 ha, the barracks some 100 ha and the remainder used for field training.
Much of the training centre is in the district known as Witheren. The civilian part of Witheren is on the west side of the training centre reserve. It was named after Mount Witheren, apparently based on an Aboriginal expression referring to the mountain or a turtle. Witheren had a primary school (1899-1965), opened 10 years after Canungra's school. Its census population in 2006 was 769.
Canungra is a horse-breeding and training centre. In 2002 the Wadham Park training complex opened, a $10 million facility situated on 200 acres on the town's outskirts, which includes the country's largest equine hospital. Canungra's fringes are increasingly coming under subdivision and rural-residential development.
Canungra is the gateway to the Lamington National Park, including the Binna Burra and O'Reilly's holiday resorts. There is a link to the Gold Coast with the Kokoda Walk (2002) from the barracks to Broadbeach. Canungra has annual shows and rodeos, golf and bowls clubs, a swimming pool, a tourist information centre, Anglican, Catholic and Uniting churches and a council library. Its census populations have been:
Edwin Franklin, The early days of Canungra and reminiscences, Canungra, Edwin Franklin, 1982
Robert Morgan, Lahey's Canungra tramway (rev ed), Melbourne, Light Railway Research Society of Australia, 2000